The Balkan Rivers: Save the Blue Heart of Europe

Web_Logo klein_blue heart

If you think about the Balkans, you think of many things: of vacation at the Mediterranean Sea, of past wars – but certainly not of stunning rivers. Indeed, Europe’s best rivers are located between Slovenia and Greece – the Blue Heart of Europe beats on the Balkans. This is where truly wild, living rivers can still be found: crystal clear creeks, spectacular waterfalls, deep river canyons, alluvial forest, and huge wild rivers with vast gravel banks. What’s more, these rivers are one of the most important hotspots for European freshwater biodiversity. Did you know that the Balkan rivers host 69 fish species that live only here and nowhere else in the world? Or did you know that over 40% of all endangered freshwater mussels and snails of Europe can be found in these freshwater systems?

Gregava, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: A. Vorauer

Gregava, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: A. Vorauer

Hardly anyone knows about it. However, this unknown treasure is threatened. The rivers of the Balkans are to be dammed. 2,683 hydropower plants (including small plants with a capacity of 0-1 MW) are projected to be built in the next few years – commonly with the help of Western businesses and loans. Not even the most striking and valuable river stretches and national parks are to be spared.

We – the environmental NGOs RiverWatch and EuroNatur – want to prevent this horror scenario from becoming reality. In preparation for the campaign, we assessed the Balkan river web and arrived at an impressive result: 80% of the 35,000 river kilometers that we examined is still in very good or good condition, 30% is almost unspoiled. In the rest of Europe the picture is reversed: 80% is in bad condition.

The Blue Heart of Europe

On a river map, the result looks like this:

HydroENG_Logo rechts

Near-natural stretches are marked in blue, slightly to moderately modified stretches are green, yellow represents extensively modified stretches, and red means severely modified. While the hydromorphological map of the Balkan river web shows mainly blue and green colours, a comparable map of the rest of Europe would light up in yellow and red.

European Biodiversity Hotspot

Balkan rivers stand out for providing habitat to an enormous number of species, many of whom are endemites (species that live only here and nowhere else in the world). According to current scientific knowledge 69 fish species are endemic to the Balkans. In addition, 40% of all endangered freshwater mollusk species (mussels and snails) of Europe live in the rivers and lakes of the Balkans.

Theodoxus fluviatilis. Photo: Jörg Freyhof

Theodoxus fluviatilis. Photo: Jörg Freyhof

Unio Crassus

Unio Crassus

This data may not exhaustive, and is likely that even more species – undiscovered species even – live in the Balkan rivers. Another characteristic of the Balkan rivers is that they are in large parts unexplored.

What’s more, the region is believed to provides habitat to an exceptional species: the huchen, also known as Danube salmon. This fish can grow as big as 1.2 metres; its habitat are intact, quick-flowing rivers with many gravel banks. Only the Balkan rivers provide such ideal conditions. Anywhere else in Europe, dams have destroyed the Danube salmon’s habitat as dams interupt its migration.

However, we know little about huchen population on the Balkans. In the course of the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign we would like to change that. Studies are in preparation

The Threat

The blue heart is at risk of infarction. According to our research, 2,683 hydropower plants (also including small hydropower plants (SHPP) with a capacity of 0-1MW) are projected to be built in the next years. Many countries plan excessive damming of all their rivers. After already having completed many new dams, Macedonia intends to construct another 203 dams (of which 4 are under construction) while Albania plans to build another 337 hydropower plants (with 24 already under construction). It is obvious, that even the most pristine rivers and national parks are not safe from this development.

Map after Update with Legend

Under the pretext of green energy, even the most valuable river stretches are to be destroyed – as in the case of this dam in Turkey. This is what we would like to prevent by means of the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign.

Under the pretext of green energy, even the most valuable river stretches are to be destroyed – as in the case of this dam in Turkey. This is what we would like to prevent by means of the “Save the Blue Heart of Europe” campaign.

Constructions of the hydropower plant Kalivaç on the Vjosa river started in 2007. Thanks to financial problems the Vjosa still flows freely through the construction site. But for how much longer?

Constructions of the hydropower plant Kalivaç on the Vjosa river started in 2007. Thanks to financial problems the Vjosa still flows freely through the construction site. But for how much longer?

The Campaign

In our campaign, we concentrate on three river basins that are particularly valuable and thus need to be spared from hydroelectric development: the Vjosa river in Albania, the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, and the Sava river in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia.

Read more about the campaign at www.balkanrivers.net

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